Rude VC: Before I hire you, tell me about your problems

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I’ve noticed a typical recruiting occurence in the States sadly creeping into hiring processes in Europe, even among startups. I’m referring to the dreaded question during a job interview of: “What are your weaknesses?”

“Tell me about your weaknesses” is an interview question with which I’ve always struggled. Without a doubt, it is far less pleasant to answer than questions like “Tell me about your strengths” or even “What is your greatest failure?”

The failure question is actually not all that difficult. The key is to recount an incident of failure, ideally with business implications, package it into a concise story, and polish it off with a moral of the lessons you learned during the ordeal.

But answering the “Tell me your weaknesses” question, at least in a sincere manner, is trickier.

What gives recruiters the right to probe into my psyche and perform a psychiatrical examination during a job interview ? Isn’t this supposed to be a professional encounter about my qualifications for a prospective job posting, not a therapy session ? Especially during a down economy with high unemployment and bleak prospects in Europe, I almost wonder if the interviewer is embarking on a bit of a power trip.

There was one job interview I had in France several years back with a person whom I found increasingly irritating during the process. When my counterpart asked me, “What is your greatest weakness?” I responded with, “J’ai du mal à supporter les cons” (I don’t suffer fools very well). Needless to say, I wasn’t offered that job.

Unless you aspire to join the ranks of a large French group, typically found on the CAC40, with an imposing corporate culture whose core tenet snuffs out any thread of creativity, rebelliousness, or originality in order to keep all company robots employees marching in the same direction, I submit that the weakness question is inappropriate.

When you’re recruiting for your startup, particularly of the fast-growing high-tech variety which interests many readers of this blog, this question has no place in a job interview. On the contrary, as an entrepreneur, you need to favor practicality over behavioral interview theory. You should try to hire a diverse set of energetic people that will bring fresh and original thinking to your business. Often great genius is accompanied by a flip side of personality quirks which could be construed as weaknesses.

And in the meantime, for seekers of jobs in startups, if you encounter the weakness question you could seize the opportunity to demonstrate your personality with a bit of humor, responding to “What is your greatest weakness?” with answers like:

“My greatest weakness? Excessive humility!”

or

“How much time do we have… shall we conf call in my wife for this?”


9 Responses

  1. Avatar
    John

    “Isn’t this supposed to be a professional encounter about my qualifications for a prospective job posting”
    Not if you’re working with other people. The question might be clumsy and difficult to answer, but I think it’s intentions are genuine. I don’t think that this question is an attempt to generate a list of weaknesses to compare to a checklist of undesirable attributes. Rather, it is an attempt to see if prospective candidates are self-aware enough to understand their impact on the rest of the team. Someone who says “I can be too opinionated sometimes” is likely to be more aware of their impact on a team than someone who doesn’t know what their weaknesses are. It can also open up discussions about personal development by asking how they address any weaknesses.
    As an aside, I find it interesting that you think your psyche is off limits during a job interview. I would have thought that this is as important as technical or professional competence. I the pot-boiler world of startups, how you behave is just as important as what you can do. So asking people how aware they are of their own faults and limitations is potentially enlightening (insofar as any single interview question can be enlightening).

    • Avatar
      mark bivens

       “As an aside, I find it interesting that you think your psyche is off limits during a job interview.”
      Hey, are you trying to psycho-analyze me ?
      Ok seriously, I agree with your good point about gauging a candidate’s self-awareness.  But I submit that there are better ways to do this.  The weakness question presents downside risk but little upside for the candidate, so good candidates will prepare the most innocuous answer possible.  Some of the silliest I’ve heard: “I’m a perfectionist.”  or “I get so passionate about work that I piss off my friends on weekends.”

  2. Avatar
    Vic

    I’m not a fan of the weaknesses question either. Firstly, how many people answer that question honestly and say things like ‘well, I’m really disorganised’ or ‘I tend to get tired and slack off after 16h’? And if they did how many companies, regardless of their size or stage of development, would not hold that weakness against the candidate? Perhaps companies should be thinking about how they can help the candidate, assuming he or she has the right
    skills, to overcome that weakness. But, how many, particularly startups, have the time or resources to do that? I suspect specificskills, passion and motivation, as you suggest, will always be the most important factors.

  3. Avatar
    Jan Barkhed

    This is a known HR question, and it has not much to do with actual strengths and weaknesses. It has to do with self-knowledge. In HR and HR-related psychology (which is a topic of its own), it’s a good thing for an employee to have self-knowledge. The specific answer to this question can be anything, as long as the subject is giving an answer that seems honest. A lot of recruiters who don’t know about this are asking the question and tries to analyze the answer. As with all good theories, this trick of the trade gets corrupted by people with insufficient knowledge and interests and turned into something the theory doesn’t cover. Hope it helps.

    • Avatar
      Ziad SALLOUM

      I agree. Some questions are aimed towards measuring the reaction of the candidate. Most of the hired people will have to deal with team members, clients etc…The last thing anyone wants is a new recruit who has bad temper or bad manners.
      This is said, I agree that there is no magic combination to discover bad manners.
      I do have a funny experience. Once I interviewed a guy whom I already told by email that the interview will be purely technical and he should be prepared. After the 3rd question, the guy got angry and asked me “why the hell I am asking him all these things”, I nicely replied that I need a way to know why should I hire him and not the guys I saw 1 hour earlier!
      Certainly enough, this guy didn’t have to tell me about his weaknesses, he simply showed them to me 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Jorge

    I tend to Agree with Jan when he says that this is a question whose objective is to determine whether the candidate can look at him/herself in a critical way and hopefully learn from his/her mistakes and improve continuously.
    My problem with this question is that it is a “standard issue” question it has been asked for years by HR people. Thus, any serious candidate will probably have thought long and hard about how to answer this question without compromising his/her chances at the job. Ergo, the answer will not be genuine.

  5. Avatar
    jean-luc scherer (@jeanluc_scherer)

    I am in full agreement with the last two comments, but also I believe Mark has a good point in saying that there are other ways to get to perform the application evaluation. Maybe I will use wrong analogy, but I think recruitment processes need to be more respectful toward the applicants, and that is more like dating. A question like “What are your weaknesses” would tend to put me off.

  6. Avatar
    Paul Weisman

    I once went to an interview (in the earlier days of Tech) trying to leave one job and join the new company, both large US Corporations in France.
    This had many interviews right down eventually to co-equippiers.. This guy asked me “If you are so great/marvellous in your existing organisation why would you leave? I realised this was hostile. If that ever happens to me again I am simply going to ask to speak to the guy’s boss.

    • Avatar
      Cécile Muller (@cecilemuller)

      I don’t know the context, but it sounds like a legitimate question and you could just answer the truth: that they no longer fit your goals or that you’ve outgrown them, and that unlike the company you’re leaving, the recruiter’s company gives you the impression that they offer what you were missing there: that turns the situation around and flatter the guy as the same, win-win 🙂
      And if the recruiter seems displeased by this answer, that’s a red flag that you shouldn’t work there anyway.

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